A Silent Retreat: Shrine of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist Patron of Madaba and Jordan

I trace the path to the museum with my finger on the tourist map, memorising the twists and turns that would take me there. Although the Madaba museum is my intended destination, I want to venture towards it with an open mind and curious eyes, so as not to miss the unexpected along the way.

The hustle and bustle of life pulsing through the streets lined with small shops sweep me along, and soon I’m lost in the twists and turns that look nothing like the map I’ve studied so carefully earlier. I feel lost and disoriented. As I turn a corner the bell tower of a church looms into view. The front façade of the creamy sandstone church makes me stop. I lift my camera, wondering for the umpteenth time where exactly I am. At the street corner towards which an entrance sign directs me, a man steps from a doorway, and beckons me to enter the church grounds. He sells me a ticket, waves his hand towards a series of mosaics that are copies of some of the most famous ones that were discovered in Madaba and surrounds, and disappears.

Latin Church 1

I enter the church through a small doorway to the right of the main doors that are securely closed. The shadowy passageway leads to a series of vaulted rooms. One is dedicated to John the Baptist, while another recreates Ruth’s tent, and yet another is named “Place of Vows”. It is clear that great care was taken when arranging the exhibits, despite the spooky atmosphere the dim lighting creates. Too curious not to continue, I shake the shiver running along my spine, and follow the narrow tunnel that leads to an old Moabite well of roughly 3000 years old, and some Byzantine ruins. The air is musty and damp. The silence deafening. There is no one else around.

Latin Church 18

I duck through the narrow entrance of a secret tunnel, while my heartbeat thunders in my ears, and just for a moment, hesitate in front of a narrow, spiralling stone staircase. A sign urges me on, announcing it to be the way into the church. I press my back against the cold rough-hewn stones, and close my eyes for a brief moment. To be all alone in an underground passageway, leading into an unknown church, is an onslaught on my senses, and over-active imagination.

With a deep inhalation, I open my eyes and follow the circular movement of the stairs. I stop in awe. Ahead of me the church opens up into a tall, voluminous space. I feel cut-off from the world. No noise from the outside intrudes upon its sacred interior. The silence feels unnatural and surreal, amplified by the sound of the blood rushing through my veins.

Dainty chandeliers line the high ceiling, while the bright sunlight illuminates the stained glass windows perching high above the rows of wooden benches, patiently waiting for the faithful to fill them. The bare stone walls bar the heat from entering, leaving the inside of the church cool and inviting.

Directly opposite from where I entered, I notice another sign indicating the way to the bell tower, and as I slip past thick ropes dangling from the ceiling, my itchy hands receive a stern warning: “Please DO NOT Ring the Bells”. As I make my way upwards, a thought flits through my mind, “No one knows I’m here.” My feet clang loudly on the last couple of steep metal steps that take me past the silent bells.

I step through a small door, and grip the metal railing, when a rush of vertigo floods through my body. My breath catches as the endless views of Madaba and its surrounding countryside open up in front of me. I carefully circle the narrow ledge clinging to the outside of the bell tower, while the wind rushes through my hair and whistles down the tower. The exhilaration of the moment leaves me breathless. I lower my camera, and lean back against the wall. Far below me life continues silently, obscured by the sound of the wind and the dizzying height.

I carefully retrace my footsteps down the bell tower, through the cool, silent interior of the church, and the narrow underground passageways into the bright sunlight of a hot August afternoon. Outside I bump into a friendly Jordanian man, who happily tells me more about the church of which he is a member, and Christianity in Jordan, before giving me directions to the museum I was looking for in the first place.

Visited:  August 2015

Entrance Fee:  JD1


# The bell tower is the highest vantage point in Madaba, and well worth a visit.